“I’m Dying Up Here” is a great read for anyone who was a fan of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Robin Williams, Richard Lewis, Elayne Boosler, Tom Dreesen, Richard Pryor, and the other comics who broke through in the 1970s.
The early years of their careers form the basis for the story about the battle that eventually raged between the comics and Mitzi Shore, owner of The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, where most of those comedians were first seen by the TV and film industry. Shore didn’t pay the stand-ups, claiming it was enough that she gave them a place to work out their routines and gain the confidence and exposure that allowed them to become stars. The comedians, many of whom were so broke they couldn’t afford food, were disenchanted with an arrangement that was making Shore wealthy while they struggled financially.
When Shore wouldn’t accede to their demands for just a few dollars per set, the stand-ups (now unified as Comedians For Compensation) went on strike outside the Comedy Store, setting up picket lines, hiring an attorney, and fighting a public relations war with Shore in the media.
Others from the era who were part of the story: Budd Friedman (owner of The Improv), Paul Mooney, Andy Kaufman, Mike Binder, Johnny Dark, Argus Hamilton, Marsha Warfield, Steve Landesberg, Jimmie Walker, George Miller, and Steve Lubetkin.
William Knoedelseder was one of the journalists who covered the comedy industry at the time, and now tells the story in great detail in “I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era.” It’s a quick read, which includes anecdotes about first-time appearances on the Carson show (the comedy brass ring, which literally made careers take off overnight), Freddie Prinze’s huge breakout and quick burnout, the drugs, the sex, and the highs and lows of the comics who did or didn’t make it.